Startups

UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge returns for its 5th cycle with $300K for Pittsburgh startups

This year's prize is for solutions aimed at promoting racial and economic justice in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Applications open Thursday, May 12.

The winners of UpPrize’s 2018 Great Ideas competition.

(Photo by Rick Southers, courtesy of UpPrize)

The UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge is back for its fifth cycle.

The competition, hosted by Innovation Works and fully funded by the BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, is aimed at bringing entrepreneurship to the social impact space. It marks the first round of the challenge since the start of the pandemic, and will offer winning teams grant awards of $150,000, $100,000 and $50,000 for first, second and third place, respectively.

This year, the challenge will specifically look for innovation centered on technologies that support local racial and economic justice as well as ones that increase diversity, equity and inclusion among Pittsburgh’s tech and entrepreneurship community. The program officially launches with an event in the evening of Thursday, May 12, and is open to nonprofits, startups and social entrepreneurs. The application deadline is Friday, July 15, at 11:59 p.m.

UpPrize launched in 2015 as a collaboration between The Forbes Funds and BNY Mellon, with Innovation Works taking on the operations in 2019. Past winners of the competition include established social impact startups and tech firms in the Pittsburgh region such as Honeycomb Credit, Civic Champs, Marinus Analytics, BlastPoint and 412 Food Rescue. In total, the challenge has provided a total of $2.5 million in grants and investments to 20 solutions, per the program’s website.

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“The UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge is a significant part of our own organization’s efforts to open up entrepreneurship to more people,” Innovation Works President and CEO Rich Lunak said in a statement. “It’s fantastic to be able to collaborate with an organization like BNY Mellon on a project like this. Their creativity, talented people, capacity to work throughout the entire region and commitment to the issues of social and economic justice make them a fantastic partner to enact social change.”

Each past cycle of the competition has focused on a certain focus areas, ranging from nonprofit service delivery improvements to healthy food to access to care and opportunity. The amount of funding has varied, too, starting with a total of $800,000 awarded in the first cycle in 2015 down to a total of $320,000 in the most recent cycle in 2020. The 2022 challenge will mark the smallest amount of funding so far, with only $300,000 available in grant awards.

As part of this year’s focus on racial and economic justice, UpPrize announced that it would provide education sessions and other tools to support entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds in participating in the challenge. The hope is that providing these resources will attract a wider range of applicants than might typically apply otherwise.

UpPrize’s return is the latest in a recent wave of interest in social impact investing in Pittsburgh. Notably, the Richard King Mellon Foundation launched its first-ever pitch competition focused on social impact startups, while the Urban Redevelopment Authority started a new pilot program to provide a government-backed source of venture funding. All of these efforts and more are required for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds in Pittsburgh to truly succeed and build a sustainable community, as former Work Hard Pittsburgh Executive Director Josh Lucas told Technical.ly at the end of last year.

For BNY Mellon, the longtime funder of UpPrize, this year’s focus goes hand in hand with new corporate focus areas as well.

“The UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge continues as a platform for investing in breakthrough ideas and bridging the gap between aspiring entrepreneurs and critical social needs in southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Eric Boughner, chairman of BNY Mellon Pennsylvania, in a statement. “This year, we’re aiming the UpPrize platform specifically at racial and economic justice, which directly aligns with BNY Mellon’s Purpose-Driven Growth Agenda and amplifying our positive impact on the world. This focus also underscores our company value of Strength in Diversity and our commitment to seeking out who is missing and helping everyone feel included. We’re very excited to see the innovative solutions that founders and organizations can create to drive social change.”


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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